A song from my early youth came back to me the other day. Here’s the first verse, with a rough translation in italics:

Le bon roi Dagobert                       Good King Dagobert
A mis sa culotte à l’envers ;           Put on his culotte backwards ;
Le grand saint Éloi                         The great Saint Eligius
Lui dit : Ô mon roi!                        Said, “O, my King
Votre Majesté                                  Your Majesty
Est mal culottée.                             Is badly culotted.”

C’est vrai, lui dit le roi,                  “It’s true,” said the King,
Je vais la remettre à l’endroit.       “I’ll put them back on properly”

I used to have this sung to me at bed-time, when I was about four or five years old–about the age I was learning to dress myself. I remember feeling very sorry for poor old Dagobert, publicly ridiculed (and by a Saint!) for putting his underwear on backwards, or perhaps inside out. As Father Prout tells us, “under culotte their lieth much hidden mystery, to be one day explained by one Sartor Resartus, Professor Teufelsdröckh, a German philosopher” [Fraser’s Magazine, vol. 10, 1834. “Professor Teufelsdröckh” is the pseudonymous author (invented by Thomas Carlyle) of a series of philosophical reflections on clothing, which is being serialized in Frasers at around the same time].

Culotte (or culottes, as I remember the lyrics) didn’t refer to underwear in the eighteenth century, when the song was written, but rather to knee-breeches, something a bourgeois or gentleman might wear out, on the way to getting picked up by the sans-culottes for future guillotining, perhaps.

But the song is much better with the twentieth century meaning, at least to a four year old, and I took it as a highly relevant cautionary tale about the pitfalls of self-dressing.

It wasn’t just that one might make a mistake in putting on one’s undergarments. It was that mal culotté was a kind of category of “thing you could be”; and there were other, more and less humiliating, more and less likely things one could be, in this way: I might find myself mal boutonné (“buttoned up the wrong way”) or mal coiffé (unkempt, hair-wise). Looking into it, I find others may have been mal chaussé (“poorly shod”) from time to time. Any of those gaffes, and a raft of others, would have made one mal habillé (“badly dressed”). [Bad as this was, worse was to be mal élevé (“badly raised” = “impolite”, “having poor manners”)].

How useful the “mal+(past participle)” phrase form is! How handy in establishing the accidental properties of things! English lacks this formula, as my translations of various mals indicates. This is a kind of weak Whorfian position: not that the English have no concept of being badly dressed or having unkempt hair, etc.–only that the syntactic and morphological features of French allow that idea to take on a different cognitive dimension within a set phrasal pattern. I don’t know what it’s called in English when someone is one button off in the way he has buttoned up his shirt. Perhaps there is no fixed expression for this. Whenever I see it, I think: mal boutonné! And if I ever have to refer, in English, to a state of being badly somethinged, depending on my audience, I’m likely to either model an English phrase on French mal+pp, or use French mal + and English pp, or simply use a French mal+pp phrase, if available.

I think this is partially because the French participial is generally more productive than the English (it is not very natural to say that I am, as I write, underweared), but also partially because of the properties of mal that “badly” doesn’t share. That closest English equivalent is clearly its own adverb, while mal functions almost as a productive prefix, at least within that mal+pp construction. With mal in your morpholexical arsenal, almost any participial state can be understood to have an equal and opposite state: okay, you’re buttoned (=properly buttoned); good thing you’re not mal buttoned (=improperly buttoned).

The closest we have in English is mis-, which functions similarly in other contexts: misattributed, misunderstood, misarranged, misaffected, etc.. But, as the fuss over (very good) misunderestimated shows, this tends to be far less productive in general. Also, while these all can be participial, they are more likely to be the past tenses of mis+verb: to misattribute, to misunderstand. French mal is post-posed for verbs: Il se culotte mal = “he puts his underwear on wrong” vs. il est mal culotté = “he is badly underweared”. We have mal-, too: in maladjusted, e.g., or maldescended. But this prefix is even less productive. In English, if you are dressed, or shod, or buttoned (up), or even underweared, for one thing this does not already assume that you are properly so–it’s neutral as to that–and for another there is no maldressed or malshod, misbuttoned or misunderweared available to reverse this implication. Rather, the English recourse is to one of several other adverbs, as badly, poorly, improperly, wrongly, or ill.

Of course, poetry is a good place for lexical innovation, maybe, so I offer this new contemporary translation of the timeless classic (Father Prout praises its “wonderful and profound range of thought”):

The good King Dagobert
Had trouble with dressing down there;
The great Saint Eloy
Told him, “Listen, Roy.
My dread Sovereign Lord
Is misunderwored

“You’re right!” replied old ‘Bert,
I shall un-mis my misunderwear!”

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